A Tale Told over Cocktails: 'Bottle of Rum'

A cover detail from 'And a Bottle of Rum'

Wayne Curtis says a friend told him that becoming interested in rum for historical reasons is like becoming interested in sex because of Darwin. Crown Publishing hide caption

itoggle caption Crown Publishing

The history of the New World is intertwined with the history of rum. That's the view Wayne Curtis takes in his book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. Curtis elaborates in a conversation with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Blackbeard's whiskers weren't the only things he would light up. To get properly toasted before an attack he would mix a little gunpowder into his rum, ignite it and swallow it blazing. Yo ho ho indeed. This tale is recounted in a new book by Wayne Curtis, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. He joins us from the studios of Main Public Radio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. WAYNE CURTIS (Author): A pleasure to be here.

ELLIOTT: This is an unusual approach to history. What led you to look at history through the lens of a cocktail glass?

Mr. CURTIS: Well, it was - it's really rum that got me interested in it and rum kept cropping up in history books that I'd been reading. A friend of mine told me somewhat mournfully that it was a little sad that I got interested in rum through history. He said it was like getting interested in sex by reading Darwin. But there you have it. And it was one of those items that just kept appearing in the background of history right from the start of the colonies and I just wanted to coax it a little bit to the foreground and see what kind of story it had to tell.

ELLIOTT: Let's start first talking about the origins of rum. It's not exactly from grand beginnings.

Mr. CURTIS: No. It's from industrial waste, basically. Rum came out of the sugar processing industry. Starting in the early 17th century in the English colonies, particularly Barbados, sugar was being made in tremendous quantities, being shipped to Europe. And part of the sugar manufacturing process is the production of molasses. Molasses oozes out of the partially crystallized sugar and it was basically considered junk. A lot of it was just dumped into the sea. But somebody figured out, well, it's got enough sugar in it to ferment so it could be fermented into a sort of wine, and then the wine could be distilled into something that was really quite nasty at the outset. Originally called kill devil, later called rum.

ELLIOTT: We don't have time to talk about all ten of the drinks that you write about. Your book is organized into these ten chapters all named for a drink. But we're going to try to get to a few here. Let's start with grog. What was grog?

Mr. CURTIS: Grog is - has an outsized reputation. It's really become pretty mythical, but basically its rum and water. And a lot of people associate it with pirates, pirates bellowing for grog on the decks on their ships. But the truth is if you run into a pirate and he's bellowing for grog you should probably avoid him because he's probably not a real pirate. The pirate era really started to die out around the time that grog appeared, which was actually quite well documented. In 1740, Admiral Vernon, who was in charge of the British fleet in the West Indies, decided that his men were perhaps tippling a little to heavily on the rum rations and he started watering it down. His nickname was Old Grogram because he wore a coat made out of a material called grogram and somebody started calling it grog and it stuck.

ELLIOTT: You write that almost overnight rum found its way into nearly every aspect of colonial life. How so?

Mr. CURTIS: Well, so much of the land and the islands, almost every arable inch was given over to sugar because it was such a valuable crop, so the islands had to import all their meat, their timber, their produce from the northern colonies. And in an exchange they had plenty of rum and molasses to ship north up to the northern colonies, New England in particular. And so it became a trade good. And by around 1700 the northern colonists realized that they could start their own distilleries and import molasses and create value up there. So at one point there may have been as many as 160 rum distilleries in New England.

ELLIOTT: How did people in colonial times drink their rum?

Mr. CURTIS: They were quite creative. You have to remember how nasty this rum was. So they would mix all sorts of things into it. They'd mix in dried pumpkin. They'd mix in beer. They'd mix in all sorts of citrus fruits that they would import up called sourings to make punch and the like.

ELLIOTT: One of your chapters is called flip. Tell us what flip was.

Mr. CURTIS: Flip is a fairly bizarre drink involving sort of equal parts ritual and taste. The ritual is this. You'd make flip with a large pewter tankard, fill it up with some dark beer and then you'd add a sweetener to it. Then you'd put a few ounces of rum into it.

And then the ritual part was to stick something into a fireplace called a loggerhead, which was a piece of - a long piece of steel with a bulb on the end of it - a bulb of metal that would get heated up red hot. This would then be thrust into the tankard and it would all just bubble and boil and foam up. I had read about this in a few places and was very curious about what it might taste like, so I had a loggerhead made for myself. I wasn't able to actually find one on eBay, but had one made by an ironmonger and experimented for a couple of nights with it and finally found a formula I liked using Guinness and a dark Jamaican rum and some molasses.

And the first sip I had of it, the initial thought that came to mind was Starbucks. It had a nice burned roasted flavor to it and I could see why it was popular with the colonists.

ELLIOTT: You say that the term being at loggerheads actually flows from this drink.

Mr. CURTIS: It did. The loggerheads would just be leaned up against the fireplace and, you know, the colonists would be into their cups after a while and start picking them up and whaling away at one another with them. And the term at loggerheads came from that. And it's sort of the last vestige of flip that we hear about today.

ELLIOTT: Wayne Curtis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CURTIS: It was my pleasure being here. Thanks for asking me.

ELLIOTT: His new book is, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.

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A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails

by Wayne Curtis

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